Any great work typically requires a heavy amount of unwavering commitment by its creator. After years as an actress, Allison (Aubrey Plaza) pivoted to becoming a writer/director. So far, her films have been unsuccessful. With her inspiration waning, she’s looking to find it at a gorgeously scenic lake house. Hosts Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant partner, Blair (Sarah Gabon) let her into all aspects of their troubled lives. Literally. It is not long until the lives of these three individuals, their thoughts, hopes, dreams, and fears all come to light.

But as crazy as it sounds, what comes out of Allison, Blair, and Gabe’s awkward interactions could be the elixir Allison needs to get her juices flowing. After all, it’s often been said that life is just a movie. But at what point does the performance cease and the life resume?

What comes to mind when the thought of “indie movie” comes into one’s head? Perhaps a combination of tiny scale, dedicated acting, minimalism, and abstraction. Those descriptors are apt for Black Bear, an indie film that lives in that space and actively works to deconstructs it. The Player comes to mind ever so slightly. Upon completion, Black Bear is hard to appreciate unequivocally on a narrative perspective, but the way it shows a peek behind a curtain on a type of film—and serves as a catalyst for a couple of pristine performances—is worth the view time.

Responsible for creating this three-dimensional movie is Lawrence Michael Levine who doubles up as a director and writer. His unnamed woodsy locale is a perfect setting for the vibe Black Bear possesses. With film editor Matthew L. Weiss and cinematographer Robert Leitzell, this trio has made two different looking movies within the one hour and forty-four minute runtime; one being a very static and voyeuristic style, the other a more on-ground and intentionally blurred/chaotic methodology.

Their delineations between these two movies are noticeably clear, because Black Bear eschews a traditional three act structure for two. As it goes on, at the risk of avoiding massive spoilers, there is a fair deal of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman here; not stylistically but thematically in the questions it poses about creating art, the meaning behind it, and the sacrifices necessary to reach the highest heights. Levine also draws on his real-life experiences working alongside his wife, Sophia Takal. Black Bear gives a lot of meat to chew on that is tied primarily to its effectiveness in keeping viewers guessing. Yet unlike Birdman, when it is time to put the fork down and assess what is being said, there is seemingly a disinterest in doing so. No problem in being ambiguous, but many a movie have been able to lean into mystery while still providing an implied answer or two.

Story clarity/resolution aside, the work of Plaza is an extraordinary reason in and of itself to recommend this film. Handling many different tones and pitches, she has never been more dynamic. Once thought to always be forever typecasted as April Ludgate, her most recent appearances in Ingrid Goes West, Legion, Happiest Season, and now Black Bear show the ability to use her natural unorthodox tendencies to enhance whatever she appears in without sticking out in an obvious way. Most of her interactions are alongside Gadon and Abbott who are nothing to scoff at either; an amazingly offbeat dinner scene bleeding into a nightcap featuring all three individuals is high on my list for one of the best stretches of any film this year. However, it is Plaza by which everything flows through.

If you’ve ever encountered a bear in person, it stands as an experience never to be forgotten. Much like the actual animal itself, the same could be said for Black Bear. That’s not debatable.


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